Technology becomes friendlier to older generations

She was the ultimate all-American mom from the 1970s raising six kids on TV, but when it came to learning how to use her cellphone to send text messages, she avoided asking her own tech-savvy children.

Technology for seniors: An article in the Dec. 20 Business section about high-tech products and services for seniors said Linked Senior, a company that provides MP3 players and content to retirement communities, was launched in June. The company was founded in 2006. The story also said the service was currently available in 14 retirement communities. It is now available in about 30 facilities. —

“I didn’t want to see them rolling their eyes,” said Florence Henderson, best known for playing Carol Brady, the sitcom mom on “The Brady Bunch.”

The 75-year-old actress “was always very afraid of anything technical like that,” and instead of seeking help from her children, she got a three-minute lesson from a business associate. She now has no problem with texting and regularly video chats with her granddaughter in St. Louis.

The experience, which Henderson described as empowering, led her to launch a senior service in October that provides technical advice and guidance without making the tech neophyte feel rushed, dismissed or embarrassed.

“For those of us who didn’t grow up with computers, it’s like learning a new language,” said Henderson, who prides herself on staying vibrant and up to date. “When I realized it was all passing me by, I was really upset about that.”

Despite the challenge of learning a new language and a new way of doing things, for many seniors, using the Web, e-mailing, Skyping the grandkids, playing video games and tapping out Facebook updates from their iPhones have become everyday activities.

“As each year passes by, the demographic starts getting more and more comfortable with the technology,” said Howard Byck, senior vice president for lifestyle products for AARP.

And technology appears to be getting more comfortable going a little gray too. Entrepreneurs and researchers are stepping up developing products and services for seniors, including high-tech walking canes with gyroscopes and Internet-based services that encourage social networking.

In October, the UCLA Center on Aging held its second Technology and Aging Conference at the Skirball Cultural Center, highlighting how technology can contribute to healthy aging. Topics included brain-sharpening games and exer-gaming, a way to use video systems such as the Nintendo Wii to exercise.

Next month the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, one of the world’s biggest showcase for high-tech gadgets, will feature a daylong series of sessions called the Silvers Summit, focusing on new tech products and services for boomers and seniors.

“You know, there’s no turning back,” Henderson said. “Technology is here.”

Here’s a look at several upcoming products and services designed for seniors:

Finding balance

Even canes and shoes, items that appear to employ no technology, are getting smarter.

A team of researchers at UCLA’s programWireless Health has fitted these walking aids with accelerometers and gyroscopes -- devices that were developed for fighter jets and missiles but are now in smart phones.

The canes and shoes would be used to monitor balance and teach users how to walk safely and avoid falling. Sensors inside can also transmit data in real time to doctors and caretakers who keep track of the user’s mobility. The canes and shoes are still in the testing phase, but developers hope to have them on the market early next year.

Program research manager Maxim Batalin said the devices could assist with monitoring outpatient rehabilitation for stroke survivors. They “enable us to tell exactly what kind of activity the person is doing and to predict how much that activity has changed,” he said.

Items that adapt

Engineers at the Quality of Life Technology Center, a joint venture between Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, are developing devices that adapt to their users. Among them is the Lean and Zoom, computer software that magnifies what’s on the screen when a user naturally leans in to see it. It works with the computer’s video camera to determine the user’s position; the closer a person leans, the more it zooms.

The software, which will be Mac- and PC-compatible, is expected to hit the market by March with a price tentatively in the $20 range, said Curt Stone, director of the program that is commercializing products.

In late 2010, the center hopes to offer another device: personal navigation that’s intuitive.

NavPrescience learns how you drive and, unlike most personal navigation devices, applies that information to map out a better path according to your past driving behavior. It would, for instance, avoid left turns if it has learned that you prefer to turn right only.

Helpful hotline

With all the gee-whiz gadgets that younger family members have been heaping on their elders, senior-sensitive technical support and guidance has been sorely lacking.

Just as the use and sharing of technology can bring families closer -- scattered relatives keeping in touch via video chats on the computer, different generations playing Wii video games together -- it can also create tension and leave older people throwing up their hands.

“A bad experience with a frustrated child can [turn] them off,” Henderson said.

Her venture, FloH Club, hopes to let seniors reach out for technical support without anxiety. Members make a low-tech, toll-free telephone call to get a PC tune-up or how-to guidance on e-mail, Facebook, Skype, digital cameras or iPods. Help is available 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

The patient technicians will either talk callers through doing it themselves or, with permission, access the computer remotely. FloH Club offers for $50 a one-time assistance or a security tune-up. Membership costs $25 monthly or $250 annually. For now, it’s offering only Windows support and plans to offer iPhone guidance soon, Henderson said.

Internet, simplified

So much communication, photo sharing and scheduling among family and friends has migrated to the Internet that not being online means being out of the loop. FamiliLink is an example of a Web-based portal that brings together a number of the most popular online functions in a single hub with a simplified, user-friendly interface.

The home page features a photo, the day’s schedule and large, colored tabs across the top for the home page, messages, pictures, contacts and calendar. In the top left is a button that sends a pre-written urgent e-mail to preselected people.

The page, which is already in a fairly large font, can be magnified several times. If photos, small videos or links to photos or videos are received in an e-mail, they are automatically displayed with no action required from the user.

Family members can update the calendar using Outlook, Yahoo or Google calendars.

Whoever is acting as the administrator on behalf of the user can add contacts, appointments, photos and small video files but cannot access e-mail messages.

FamiliLink is available free of charge.

Fun things

If iPods and mainstream MP3 music players seem too daunting, there are simplified products that do the same thing. Linked Senior puts portable audio in the hands and ears of seniors with a device no smaller than a TV remote control. All it has are five buttons for playing the audio and controlling the volume. Content can be downloaded from computers or from kiosks in senior living facilities.

In addition to music, the 512-megabyte device can hold about two audio books. Initially, the developers wanted to include lots of computer memory. But it turns out that seniors don’t seem to use MP3 players the way teens do, said Charles de Vilmorin, chief executive and co-founder of Linked Senior. “Older people don’t act like teenagers and keep everything,” he said. “You can always come to the kiosk and get more.”

De Vilmorin says the system offers more than 60,000 audio pieces for download, including audio books, talk shows, radio shows, music, language lessons, news, cooking lessons, sermons and games.

Listening to an MP3 device may not seem social, but De Vilmorin says residential communities have been using them for book discussion groups and cooking classes.

“We found out it really creates community within community,” he said.

The company, which officially launched in June, leases the system directly to retirement communities, charging a monthly subscription fee based on the facility’s number of beds. It is currently in 14 retirement communities in the mid-Atlantic region, with plans to expand across the country.

On the horizon

Short-term memory is often the first thing to show wear and tear. But the may have a solution.

Currently dubbed “first-person vision,” the eyeglasses act like a backup brain, with two tiny attached cameras -- one looking forward and the other focused on the eye to track what the user is looking at. A memory chip would contain digital images of and data about faces and places familiar to the user. The glasses, through an audio device, would help the wearer identify who or what they are seeing.

The glasses -- likely to be available late next year -- could be used by people with memory impairment, autism, Alzheimer’s disease or prosopagnosia, the impaired ability to recognize faces. The database of images and data would grow as the user encountered new people and things.

“It can provide comfort, even information that can be helpful to them,” said Stone of the . “It can help them navigate the world around them.”